Between a rock and a crazy place

Gendered Marbles

2017-09-05

tl;dr: "Some marbles, apparently, have a gender. And they seem to be overwhelmingly male."

A couple of days ago The MarbleLympics 2017 popped into my twitter stream. In case you are unaware (I certainly was): It's a series of videos where a bunch of marbles participate in a made-up Olympics. They are split into teams that then participate in a series of "competitions" in a variety of different events. The whole event is professionally filmed, cut and overlaid both with fake noises from spectators and a well-made, engaging sports commentary. It is really fun to watch. I don't know why, but I find it way more captivating than watching actual sports. I thoroughly recommend it.

Around event 8 (high jump) though, I suddenly noticed that the commentator would occasionally not only personify but actually gender marbles. For most of the commentary he just refers to the teams as a whole with a generic "they". But every once in a while - and especially often during the high-jump event - he would use a singular gendered pronoun. Also, that only really occurred to me when he referred to one of the marbles as "she".

This instantly became one of those things that after noticing it, I couldn't unnotice it. It's not so much that it matters. But from then on, I couldn't stop listening up every time a singular pronoun was used.

Well, you know where this is going. Fully aware of how much of a waste of my time this is, I sat down and counted. More specifically, I downloaded the closed captions of all the videos and grepped through them for pronouns. I did double-check all findings and here is what I found: By my count, 20 distinct marbles are referred to by singular pronouns (yes. I noted their names to filter duplicates. Also I kind of hoped to find a genderfluid marble to be honest). Here is an alphabetized list of gendered marbles:

As you can see, the overwhelming majority of gendered marbles are men. There is exactly one exception: Mary. From what I can tell, that's because it's the only name that has clear gender associations. All the other names probably could go either way. And marbles obviously have no gender. They are as non-gendered an object as you could imagine. And yet there seems to be a default assumption that athletic marbles would be men.

Obviously this doesn't matter. Obviously you can't discriminate marbles. You can't misgender them or hurt their feelings. Obviously the commentator didn't sit down and made a list of all the marbles and assigned 95% of them a male gender - it's clearly just an ad-hoc subconscious assignment. And to be absolutely clear: I do not try to fault the makers of these videos at all. They did nothing wrong. It's a ludicrous expectation for them to sit down and make sure that they assign balanced genders to their marbles.

But I do find it an interesting observation. I do think it reflects an implicit, unconscious bias in a striking way. I also think it illustrates nicely that gender bias in language isn't exclusive to languages like German, where all nouns are gendered (take note, German friends). Of course none of this is news. This kind of unconscious gender bias in language is well-researched and documented. It's just that once you know about it, you can't stop noticing the evidence for it popping up everywhere. Even with marbles.

And all of that being said: Yes, I am also aware that all of this is slightly ridiculous.


PS: In case the team behind the MarbleLympics are reading this: Really, thank you for the videos :) They are great.